The King of Heaven

There are some people who just seem to exude command. For example, I have a coworker, a former soldier and natural-born leader, who people seem to just love to follow. It’s an uncommon trait that many of the greatest influencers in history have possessed. That certain je nais se quois is something nearly all of us have experienced at some point or another in our lives. When someone walks into a room and, without notice, everyone is aware that that person has arrived. A king entering his throne room or a judge taking his bench, these are moments of command that cause people to hush and pay attention. Matthew shows us throughout his Gospel that Jesus had this effect on people. The reason why is something that has come under attack rather recently.

Aspects about who Jesus was and what he did have been under criticism, and even open opposition, since the day he was born. We hold that Jesus is divine; people have attacked that. We hold that Jesus was human; people have attacked that too. Jesus is perfect? Attacked. Jesus is an equal but separate member of the Trinity? Attacked. Jesus is judge? Don’t be ridiculous, he was too loving. Jesus is perfect love? Impossible, he was a radical rebellion-instigating fanatic. As the most influential person in history, every aspect of Jesus’ life has been dissected, put under the microscope, and criticized. Most recently, those voices who like to say pointlessly controversial things have decided to attack the kingship of Jesus.

This somewhat makes sense. Jesus as king would have the authority to legislate on our lives and enforce that legislation. However, if we deny Christ as king, then he can’t do anything to us. He then becomes a hippy Jewish carpenter with a cult following. Hippy Jesus is much more attractive than king Jesus. Hippy Jesus loves us, saves us, and frees us to live true to ourselves. King Jesus, in contrast, is oppressive, archaic, and harsh. The problem with Hippy Jesus, however, is that he is found in absolutely no part of the Bible. King Jesus, on the other hand, is found all over, and he is never seen as oppressive. Instead, he is seen as a conquering hero, freeing captives, establishing justice, and leading his people to glory. This is what Matthew hopes for us to see.

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” This passage is incredible because it describes exactly the presence we have been talking about. This centurion seems to have heard about Jesus, is significantly impressed by his reputation, and comes to Jesus in a position of humility. Matthew doesn’t even give us this man’s name, but this man continues to speak to us about what it means to properly approach Jesus. He opens with a title in recognition of Jesus’ status: Lord. Make no mistake as to the significance of this word and out of whose mouth it came. It is clear from historical and literary context that the centurion’s use of the Greek work kyrios is by no means a simple polite address. It is the word for one in authority: lord or master. It has been said that this usage is akin to the modern usage of the word, which we could translate as “Sir,” or is closer to the Spanish, “Señor.” This interpretation could not be farther from Matthew’s intention, and falls into the greater category of poor arguments against Christ’s kingship.

If we look back on Matthew’s previous inclusions of the word, “lord,” the intent becomes clear. Jesus makes the claim that not everyone who says to him “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven. There is a direct connection here between the kingdom of heaven and Jesus as its lord. Matthew then begins a collection of case studies that illustrate Jesus’ authority; beginning with a couple about people saying, “Lord, Lord.” The first is about a leper. The first word out of the leper’s mouth is, “Lord.” Matthew is presenting Jesus as king to the Jewish people, and the first person to address him properly is a leper! This person, who was treated as nothing more than human debris by his society, is the only person so far in Matthew’s account to hold Jesus in a position befitting a king. The rhetorical emphasis on this man is glaring, but at the same time it is not hard to imagine an outcast who has been humbled out of desperation. So, Matthew gives another example, and this time the point can’t be ignored.

Imagine living under a brutal foreign regime that is occupying your country and a high-ranking military official, who exists as a living embodiment of that oppression, comes up to a nomadic carpenter-turned-teacher and says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” This is a very different scenario than we just saw with the leper. Even if the centurion doesn’t fully understand who Jesus is, he clearly understands enough to overcome his own personal and cultural prejudices and recognize that not only does Jesus have authority, but that authority is greater than his own. This gap between he and Jesus that the centurion closes is so vast that the passage informs us that, “When Jesus heard this, he marveled.” Imagine doing anything so astounding that even the king of the universe marvels! To the surrounding Jewish audience, this would have been utterly astonishing. But to the reader of Matthew, it should fit right in with where we see Matthew headed.

Let’s back up to Matthew chapter 1, to the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew spends time to detail the royal lineage of Jesus, stemming back to David. He then notes the first attack on Jesus’ kingship, Herod’s attempt to murder the newborn king of the Jews. Then, John the Baptist begins to preach, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and for the first time we hear that the king is coming. In Matthew chapter 4, we see Jesus even command Satan himself saying, “Be gone, Satan!” and he who is called “the god of this world” is brought into immediate subjection. In fact, this command, “Be gone,” is the same that he gives the centurion in 8:13. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus then calls his first disciples, including the sons of Zebedee, who leave their father behind in a fishing boat. No child in the First Century Roman Empire is just leaving their father behind, yet the authority of Jesus demands that when they are called, they come. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus commit a taboo for the rabbis of his time. He uses the phrase, “I say…” as opposed to the proper, “It is said…” that was acceptable at the time. This shift in language is certainly not lost on the crowds, as they, “were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had dominion and not as their scribes.” I translate the word, here, as “dominion,” not because it fits any better than “authority,” but because it links us to a prophesy in Daniel chapter 7 that Matthew seems to have in mind through his uses of the word exousia, as well as references to the kingdom of heaven.

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”

So, in tracing these points throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we can see that Matthew’s purpose is at least in part to show Jesus as the king of heaven, having all authority to establish his rule and reign.

This authority is clearly seen in Matthew chapter 8. First, this leper comes prostrated in humility, and we’re led to believe in faith as well, to be healed. We could honestly stop right there, pack it up, and go home as far as application for our lives goes, but Matthew goes further and gives us theology. So, we will follow him to that theology. Verse 3 says that stretching out his hand, Jesus touched the leper. If you know your Levitical Law at all, as I’m sure you do, you would know that this action would immediately make Jesus unclean. Instead, Jesus issues two words in Greek, “’I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” The first word, translated, “I will,” demonstrates Jesus’ agency, and the second, “be clean,” demonstrates Jesus’ power over the disease. Here we see Jesus’ authority over two things, at least. Jesus demonstrates that he has authority over nature by commanding the body of the man to “be clean.” At the command of Christ, natural law has no choice but to comply. The kingship of Christ is so absolute that the very universe hangs on his every word, because it was by his word that it came to be. Paul describes Jesus in Colossians chapter 1 saying, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Consider John’s corroboration, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” The preeminence of Christ is such that his word constitutes reality itself. If Jesus says that blue is now red, then it is. If he says that 2+2 now equals fish, then the universe and the laws of nature would wrench themselves into conformity with that word. So here in Matthew chapter 8, we see that a case of leprosy stands no chance before the awesome dominion of the word of Christ.

Second, we see that Christ has authority over the Law. As already noted, when Jesus touched the leper, he should have become unclean, but that’s not what happened at all. Rather than Jesus becoming unclean, the leper becomes clean. Jesus has just finished giving the greatest sermon ever preached on proper understanding of Torah, and the first thing Matthew records him doing after is bending Torah to his will. Throughout these verses we here the reaction of the crowd echo, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had dominion and not as their scribes.” Even in this, though, he does not toss aside the Law, as he tells the leper to go and fulfil the Law’s requirement for restoration.

It is in this context that Matthew escalates the scenario. Before we had a lowly man acting lowly, but now we see a noble man in humility. And not just any high-standing man, but a Roman centurion. I can’t help but keep trying to wrap my mind around what this might’ve looked like to the Jewish crowd surrounding. I mean, this guy is comparatively a Nazi (I hesitate to say that because I’d rather not sensationalize biblical exegesis, but in the history of Jewish persecution, the Romans can at least be considered on par with Nazi Germany and the modern comparison is useful for our understanding of historical context.) and an influential one at that. Yet we read that Jesus claims, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” In trying to wrap my mind around this, I think, “The outrage! Jesus is insane! This guy is total depravity personified, and Jesus says he is the example?” But it is true. This man who by all worldy logic ought to be the farthest from the promises of God, comes and demonstrates incredible faith. The best part is Jesus explains what he wants us to learn from this in verses 11-12, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus tells us that only those who follow the king will be accepted into the kingdom, and even those who are close to the kingdom will not be let in if they do not believe.

So, what exactly does this centurion do to demonstrate such noteworthy faith? It begins with that address, “Lord,” and continues to his recognition of standing before Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” and his recognition of Jesus’ ultimate authority, “but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” This pattern could almost be copied into a sinner’s prayer: a recognition of standing before Christ, “I am a sinner,” and recognition of Christ’s authority, “I need you to save me.” The authority of Christ, and his position as the king of heaven, bears onto our lives with inescapable consequences. If you reject his lordship, he will lead you to death as an enemy of the throne. But should you humble yourself before him, and believe on him for salvation, then he will lead you to eternal life. This is why Paul says, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and though us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the sweet smell of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To one a stench from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” In every case, Christ is victorious; Christ is king.

Christ the conquering king of heaven means everything to the Christian life. Without Christ’s authority, he could not conquer sin, and we would have no salvation. Without Christ’s authority, he could not conquer death, and we would have no resurrection. Without Christ’s authority, he could not put everything in subjection, and there would be things outside his control (Hebrews 2:8). Without Christ’s authority, the devil would still rule (Hebrews 2:14). If Christ was not king, we would still be under the insufficient and condemning requirement of the Law (Hebrews 7:27). Without Christ the conquering king, we would be left in this world without hope of rescue (Revelation 1:13-18). These negatives show us why we can enjoy the positives. Why can you ask for anything in his name? Because everything is his to give (James 1:17)! Why do we praise him when good things happen? Because it is he who is in control! Why do we turn to him when bad things happen? Again, you may not like it but it is he who is in control (Isaiah 45:7, caution on the translation of the Hebrew ra’ for this one)! Do you want to be a more confident Christian? Believe in the kingship of Christ. Do you want to experience true and lasting peace? Have faith that Jesus is Lord. Do you want to have better relationships? Submit, first, to the authority of Christ. Are you struggling to preach the Gospel to other people? Rely on the power and authority of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every beast of the forest is his. The cattle on a thousand hills are his. Every bird and all that moves in the field are his. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is the King of Righteousness and the King of Peace. He’s the King of Heaven and of Earth. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The apostle Paul conveys in the beginning of that passage in Philippians the same feeling that Matthew conjures up in his Gospel in the next few verses of chapter 8. In a one-two punch we see Jesus heal a fever and exorcise demons. Unlike today, sources tell us that the ancient world had no medicine for a fever, and the result was often deadly, but Matthew shows us it is nothing for Jesus. In the same way, demonic forces are under total subjection to him. Matthew tells us, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” Paul says in Philippians, “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be plundered, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Matthew takes us to the prophecy of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 53 to enlighten us on just how unbelievable the gap between Jesus’ lordship and his humility is.

“Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—so shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand. Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

And so, at last we see where Matthew will head throughout the rest of his Gospel: King Jesus, having all authority to establish his rule and reign, as the rejected Messiah of Israel. Matthew will go on from here to continue to show us the authority of King Jesus, as well as a wicked and perverse generation who rejects him and ultimately kills him. Matthew’s point in demonstrating this is the same as mine is in discussing it, that, hopefully, you would not make the same mistake.

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